In an effort to counter mounting concerns about trips to Cuba, a group of U.S. travel officials with ties to the destination, gathered in Havana this week, to give their side of the story.
“Cuba remains legal and safe, and a welcoming destination for U.S. travelers,” said Tom Popper, president of InsightCuba, a New Rochelle, NY-based tour operator that organized the Cuba Media Day event.
After the U.S. government in November moved to tighten rules on who could travel to the once-forbidden destination, “many thought traveling to Cuba was over,” Popper observed, adding that people wrongfully assumed that the new rules made it difficult or even impossible for most Americans to go there.
“The reality is that Americans can travel under one of the 12 categories [of permissible reasons for traveling to Cuba],” he said. “Tour operators can arrange trips; commercial airlines are still flying to Cuba; cruise ships are calling; and travel agents are booking clients.”
While it may be preferable to go as part of a group, lawyer and panelist Lindsey Frank said that the category of “support for the Cuban people” would permit anyone to go, as long as they patronize smaller, B&B-style properties and private, home-based restaurants.
Positive message is not reaching the public
But more than a dozen representatives of tour operators, airlines, hotel and cruise companies in attendance shared their frustrations that their message does not appear to have reached much of the traveling public.
Among other signs that a downturn is underway, Popper mentioned that his flight to Havana from New York on JetBlue was less than 30 percent full. Several airlines have already curtailed the services that they had fought so hard to win the year before – Alaska Airlines, for example, just dropped its service between Los Angeles and Havana. Other airlines have cut frequencies or downsized their aircraft.
Martha Pantin, a senior communications manager at American Airlines, said her company is nonetheless bullish on the long-term outlook, noting that while the carrier has cut back some service to secondary cities in Cuba, it has also applied for rights to add 17 additional flights per week between Miami and Havana – a popular route due to the size of the Cuban-American population in southern Florida.
There is also confusion about lodging options, after the Treasury Department in November issued a long list of hotels and other establishments that are off-limits to Americans because of their ties to the Cuban military.
And early in January, the State Department updated its travel advisory, urging consumers to “reconsider travel” to Cuba, citing reports of alleged “sonic attacks” on U.S. diplomats, some that were said to take place at well-known hotels, and were reported to have caused flu-like symptoms in victims. (The Cuban government has strenuously denied these reports, calling them “science fiction.”)
Safe and even more affordable now
Several participants at the Cuba Media Day event noted the irony of Cuban having just won an award as the “safest country in the world" at an international tourism conference in Madrid.
And since the reestablishing of relations between Washington and Havana in early 2015, Cuba, if anything, was almost too popular during the initial surge of pent-up demand. American visitors rose by nearly 40 percent in 2016; and last year reached a record, with 650,000 travelers from the U.S. out of a total of 4.5 million international visitors to Cuba in 2017. Many of the of 4.5 million are from Canada and Europe, which have always allowed unrestricted travel to the nation.
While in 2016, Cuba was dubbed the “hottest destination” for American travelers, especially after commercial airline flights started up in the fall of that year, in recent months, “there is definitely a softness," said Francisco Camps Orfila of the Spanish-based Melia hotel group, which has two dozen properties on the island.
Further complicating the situation was that Hurricane Irma did some damage to hotel properties, although Jose Bisbe York, president of Viajes Cuba, said that most of the affected properties have made the necessary repairs to reopen.
Terry Dale, head of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, emphasized that “our core philosophy has been that any U.S. traveler should be allowed to travel wherever they want.” He called on the industry to combat the negative perceptions of Cuba stirred up by Washington, adding “we have a communications challenge, and we have to be diligent ambassadors to get our message across.” That message, he said, is that “Cuba is open for business.”
In fact, as a number of the participants noted, one silver lining is that softening demand is causing hotel and tour prices to go down. An affordably-priced trip to Cuba may be the best argument the industry can make to persuade American travelers to book now.